A spaceship. A Martini-liveried, four-wheeled spaceship being unloaded from a truck. That was most peoples' first glimpse of the Lancia Delta S4 as it landed in the UK ahead of the 1985 RAC Rally. Social media didn't exist back then, so few outside the enthusiast press and hardcore rally-supporting community would have seen the grainy, black-and-white images from the small-scale events that Abarth had entered with '038' prototypes. Fewer still would have heard it, but that was all about to change.
Lag is the enemy of any turbocharged engine, especially in a rallying application where throttle response and a wide torque band are key. Lancia's idea to combine both supercharger and turbocharger technology for the S4's powerplant gave rise to two distinct characteristics: violent performance and an engine note that was almost ethereal. At idle, it buzzed impatiently in the manner of a two-stroke, the noise overlaid with a strange, crisp sort of whistle from the two compressors. Up the rev range, it snarled and roared, a primeval roar that fitted perfectly with how the car performed and looked. Off throttle, it hissed and whined and spat gobs of flame from its exhaust pipes. To watch, hear and feel an S4 squat on its haunches and accelerate out of a junction on gravel, all four wheels still spinning long after its driver had snatched fifth gear must have been just incredible.
Back to the spaceship part. Since the advent of Group B rules in 1982, the appearance of the different cars had become wilder and wilder. By the tail end of 1985, even the elegant Peugeot 205 T16 had sprouted front canards and a surfboard rear spoiler. The Audi Sport Quattro S1 E2 was almost a caricature of itself, a gigantic, nose-heavy flying wing. As hard as Roland Gumpert and the Audi crew tried, no amount of downforce could fully negate the effect of a big, heavy engine sitting out beyond the front axle line. The squared-off, fresh-out-of-the-box MG Metro 6R4 looked like the polygonal lovechild of a Metro and a 1984 Formula One car (the ones with ALL the wings), while the sleek Ford RS200 was the purest, its Ghia-designed shape too young to have yet been plastered with gaudy aero.
All of the above looked powerful and purposeful. None of them looked as eminently dangerous as the Delta S4, though. It wasn't a pretty car; far from it. It sat awkwardly high, even in full European tarmac trim, the front splitter moulded into the clamshell front end nowhere near low enough to the ground. In profile it was ungainly, the slight tint on the rear windows obscuring the hissing, spitting monster of an engine lashed to the spaceframe between the axles. The black rear spoiler looked like an afterthought, about five times too small, while the lack of any rear bumper (like the last of the preceding 037s) displayed the guts of the beast for all to see.
It wasn't much better inside. The thin bars of the spaceframe chassis didn't endow much confidence in its crash integrity, the shoulder straps of the harness mounted immediately aft of the seats on a rectangular brace. The lettering 'Sparco for Toivonen', and a Martini racing stripe gave the blue-trimmed, Kevlar racing bucket a little style, perhaps to distract the occupant from the fact that he was sitting on and practically in the L-shaped fuel tank. A metallic coating intended to shield the cabin from heat completes the space ship effect. The whole package looked, sounded, smelt other-worldly. It was. A one-two first time out on the RAC Rally set the tone, the Italian cars surprisingly reliable on an event that claimed many victims. The next round, Monte Carlo in '86, was all Henri Toivonen's. Not even a chassis bent like a banana from a collision with a road car between stages could stop him.
As is now well-documented, the Delta S4 bit Toivonen back on an innocuous-looking left-hander in Corsica and took his life and that of co-driver Sergio Cresto, its fuel ablaze even before the accident had come to a stop. It was a monster. Comparing the Delta S4 to the 205 T16 on a high-speed gravel corner gives some idea of how difficult it must have been. The Peugeot would arc around in a gentle drift, its attitude dictated by the driver and forgiving to a degree in the event of a sudden change of line. The Lancia would snatch its way around, pitching and yawing and rolling, constantly transitioning from slip to almost-grip and back, the power delivery fighting with the transmission, the chassis, the tyres and anything else that got in its way, while the wide-eyed pilot tried his best to keep the damned thing straight. It looked a bit like someone trying to sprint downhill on the tips of their toes. Not pretty, but somehow still effective.
Effective enough, in fact, to bring Markku Alen the world championship, if only for eleven days before Juha Kankkunen and Peugeot were rightly reinstated as champions, after the farcical Sanremo Rally results were scrubbed from the history books. Do I care that the S4 never fully succeeded on the world stage? No, not tonight. It's impossible to care about much else when an S4 has just done a full-bore standing start at midnight on a San Marino hillside, and I've been close enough to feel the heat of the exhaust on my leg.
Hang on a sec. Group B was banned three decades ago, so what's going on? This, my friends, is the magic of Rallylegend. Conceived back in 2003 and held entirely within the tiny Republic of San Marino, Rallylegend has transformed from a relatively small-scale gathering predominantly catering for historic rally cars into its present format: a weekend-long festival featuring everything from Group 4 Ford Escorts to the latest WRC machines. Oh, and some pretty famous participants, more of whom in a minute.
While there is a timed element, it's not like your typical competitive event. This year's iteration featured four stages on Friday night, a further six on Saturday afternoon and a spectator-friendly pair of tests around an industrial complex on Sunday morning. In fact, the whole event is super-easy for spectators to get around, massively helped by the 'Rallyvillage' arena that encompasses service, parc ferme, trade stands (containing some of the coolest memorabilia, books, models and clothing you'll ever see), and a roundabout that hosts what looks like a low-level drifting contest each night. Mad.
Thanks to San Marino's tiny size and the stages' proximity to service, you could travel the whole weekend on foot and still see plenty of action, though for the full Mediterranean rallying experience a car with a boot full of wine, a portable BBQ and plenty meat and bread is highly recommended. And chairs. We of course had none of those things, much more familiar as we are with spectating on Irish rallies where waterproof gear and a tepid, sweaty bag of fuel station sausage rolls are the main requirements.
The weather was perfect, a little chilly at night, but bone dry from Thursday to Sunday. Let me tell you, standing on a hillside at dusk with a thousand other enthusiasts, as flares and fireworks light the sky, while air horns and two-stroke engines compete for aural attention with a popping and banging Audi Quattro takes some beating. It's pretty much heaven for anyone who grew up on a diet of old Group B videos, and gives a very authentic indication of what it must have been like to be a spectator in those wild days.
Now, about those participants. With this year marking the tenth anniversary of Colin McRae's death, two-time world champion co-driver Luis Moya (the guy who threw his helmet through the back window of a Toyota Corolla when it broke down on the last stage of the 1998 RAC Rally) and the rest of the Rallylegend team put in a gargantuan effort to secure the attendance of as many world champions as they could. The end result was stunning, reading like a history book: Hans Thorszelius. Ari Vatanen. Stig Blomqvist. Timo Salonen. Juha Kankkunen. Miki Biasion. Louise Aitken-Walker. Didier Auriol. Derek Ringer. Marcus Gronholm. Petter Solberg. Sebastien Loeb. Sebastien Ogier. Most took part in the champion's parade on Sunday, where the crowds were treated to the edifying sight of Sebastien Loeb doing doughnuts in a Citroen C4 WRC as Nicky Grist laughed in the passenger seat.
That wasn't all of course, as famous faces from then and now also played their part. Sandro Munari, Andrea Aghini and Piero Longhi are legends of Italian rallying, while Hyundai's Thierry Neuville filled the interval between the Sunday stages with a tyre-shredding display in an old i20 WRC. Kris Meeke, a man who was very close to the McRae clan as Colin's protégé, drove a Citroen Xsara WRC to its limits all weekend. Alister McRae piloted a Subaru Legacy as course car, receiving a rapturous reception whenever he passed, and Colin's parents Jimmy and Margaret and daughter Hollie seemed amazed at the sheer number of fans that had thronged into San Marino for the event. It was an incredible tribute.
Who best to explain the McRae legend, than the people who sat beside and competed against him?
"He was such a special driver. Sometimes in some places you would look at the time and just wonder how he did that." - Didier Auriol
"To have a Vatanen and a McRae in the same team was very special, and sometimes busy for the body shop!" - Ari Vatanen
"I always looked up to Colin, he was one of the biggest names in the sport. And when I came to fight against Colin, he was incredible, a really tough competitor." - Marcus Gronholm
"In the end he put me in the car and drove. Flat. Out. Honestly, I almost sh*t myself." - Petter Solberg, not a man who scares easily, speaking about a pre-event test with Colin
"We had a lot of victories together, but they weren't always the rallies with the best stories - they were usually the ones where we had the biggest accidents." - Derek Ringer
"Colin McRae was one of the most naturally gifted drivers ever, And, like everybody like that, he made what he did look very easy. But he was so spectacular and so committed, and it made him unbelievably popular." - Nicky Grist
While this year was always going to be special thanks to those big names, it's an event that every rally fan should try and visit at least once. Solberg, Meeke and Neuville have already indicated that they'll be in attendance next year, and with local lunatics like Paola Diana in his screaming Fiat 131, as well as the slightly terrifying sight of a brace of Renault Clio Maxis trying to outdo each other in a competition presumably entitled "Scariest rear-suspension induced moment after a jump", you won't be disappointed. Fly into Rimini, Bologna, Milan, wherever. Rent a car, drive around and take in the supercar region around Modena while you're at it. Drink the world's best coffee and wine, eat the world's best food. As a motorsport fan, it's one of the best weekends you'll ever have.